My hands don’t look like my own.
They remind me of my mother’s in her wedding photos. (Are wedding photos taken for the sole purpose of perfecting the image of the mother for the daughter, so that when she measures her own beauty she will know what to hold it up against?)
Most especially, the thumb. Thumb going down to wrist, the new tanned angle of it.
I resist flying home to California to be with her and my father. Opt instead to live like an unmarried, orphaned Edwardian heroine in a large, creaky house on a moor with my aging uncle. The moor being New Jersey.
Every morning, I run out of my uncle’s house past manicured lawns and eat and write my way through the afternoons. While running, heaven glimmers close: dancing at a club, blotting lipsticks at Sephora, sitting on my hands on my therapist’s couch, meeting friends, meeting Ace, our fingertips damp with the sweat of cocktail glasses.
Then back to the dining room table trying not to look at myself during Zoom writing workshops. My hair resembles somebody else’s, somebody I’ve never met before.
For two days, I don’t wear makeup. A rarity. I say, “I like this look.”
Eyes lighter, less velvet, the expression in them softer, ageless. I look like I did at seven and eight, cheeks wide.
I am the only one looking at myself so I inhabit all currents of attitudes.
Since leaving New York for New Jersey, I have not seen my body in a full-length mirror. It is time to just be smart, I tell myself. To lay thoughts of beauty and objecthood to rest, but I cannot.
I grasp at the parts of me which are already thin and intelligible. If I left my body alone, my skin alone then I’d know what I really look like. The bumpy, unpolished marble.
The same is true of my brain. If I left my thoughts alone, the whir of its fan which moves curtains, pages and images around my head, would I know myself without constantly having to look? Would I ever write?
The crush on Ace swells. Most especially when it feels so alone here, with my past smooth and glossy as water and my future untrustworthy.
He texts me a recipe for rice and the memory of making pasta together, my jeans ashy with flour, buoys in my brain.
I want to write him three texts instead of one. My pulse snapping.
When I’m let in from the Zoom waiting room into the MFA craft talk, I think I see, or project I see his face change, registering my face. He wears a beanie to cover his hair, tops of his ears tucked in, beard grown out honey brown, brows full and arched. His box of face sits beside the speaker’s so my eyes rest easily on him without moving my head.
I believe we bond silently, digitally, in pixels over the hour. We are the only two to raise our hands to the question, “Who does not think they want to write a novel?”
My uncle sometimes appears in the corner of my screen in his pressed shirt and tie. When he comes downstairs for his lunch of microwaved Tostitos with chunky salsa I move my notebooks to the corner of the table, but he continuously asks, “What did you do today?” as if my pens and papers are merely decorative.
Dinner and Jason Bateman in Ozark become our favorite topics of discussion. I cook since my uncle’s taste depends only on how long it takes to make and clean up the food.
I slather roasted cauliflower in salted mayonnaise and breadcrumbs and he pulls out his notebook and beloved Uniball Signo gel pen and writes “cauliflower steak” under “Best Meals.” Before dinner, he meditates in a chair in the backyard. My uncle hardly chews, rinsing his plate in the sink with voluminous thanks and bounding quickly upstairs to his Zoom Zendo meeting.
Alone at the table, I think about cooking’s incredible approach to craft. Food toggling between entertainment and necessity and negating any statehood, any autonomy because engaging with dinner is eating it.
It’s nice that a meal can require others and in making it, you care for them and say, “Take this thing I made and make it disappear.”
I wish writing could be this way.
My best friend in LA calls every week. My phone, her voice, pressed to my ear.
“The men in my life are my uncle and my therapist,” I tell her. I suspect I’m an old man too, but then I sit down to write and everything is about the body or I sit down to write and everything is a list of ingredients.
My best friend tells me of socially distanced dates which warp the contemporary and make her feel like a walking anachronism. “I’m courting,” she says.
“Our lives have the consistency of butter,” I offer, thinking of the cream-colored brick of Earth Balance in the fridge, carved with gulfs and crannies.
There’s a pause. Then she says, “I don’t know what you mean.”
The butter is just permission. The one extravagance my uncle eats too much of and which I write on the grocery list every other week. It’s unstable and adapts immediately to its climate–relinquishes shape in melting or hardens with crumbs preserved in it like amber. I also eat too much of it. My mind loves to jumble images into metaphors.
For a month, the nonsensical butter metaphor becomes a running joke.
“Oh, you mean, like butter,” I’ll say and she’ll respond, “Mhm, yeah, exactly. Yes.”
Before dinner, my uncle holds a plastic pig in front of the Alexa screen beside the dining room table.
“Hellooooo Margot, so good to see you. Hellooooo Margot, so glad to see you too,” he sings and the green-eyed child gurgles on the screen.
I am usually at the stove but wave to her and her mother, my favorite cousin, who, until the arrival of the baby, was the only other girl in the family.
My cousin serves the baby sautéed portobello mushrooms, a half an avocado, mac n’ cheese, a veggie burger, peeled carrots, home-made pizza, plain yogurt, washed raspberries and a teaspoon of peanut butter.
“Did you go to the beach today, Margot?” My uncle says, a monkey puppet on his hand.
The baby shakes her head no. There is something lawyerly in these calls with her—a round of rhetorical questioning.
“Did you have a nice time at the beach with Mommy?”
She knocks over a tiny plastic bowl and laughs. My cousin puts down her beer and stoops to pick it up.
My age wobbles in these moments. Am I an adult to this child and a child to myself? The pandemic has saved me from being twenty-four, held my life at bay so its waves lap at a distant shore.
“Anything I can help with?” says my uncle without turning to me.
I peer into the oven and say, “I think we’re all set if I haven’t burned it.”
“Hi darling,” says a familiar voice and blonde bangs appear on the Alexa. My aunt. My uncle and I both miss her as if we are her children, which I guess we are.
My aunt’s face is tanned and freckled despite being stuck in Maine. Margot grabs her sweater. “Na-na,” she says.
“That’s right,” everyone but me says.
When they hang up I am usually scooping rice onto plates. My uncle says the same thing every time, “Man is she amazing. What a smart kid.”
After dinner, we wash the dishes by hand. The dishwasher is off limits for Zen reasons I cannot fathom.
Sometimes, my uncle tells me of being skinny and stoned in 1970s New York. The girls his friends would bring home (one called “The Screamer”) and the love letters he wrote his future wife.
Then he leaves to take a walk around the neighborhood and I do the same.
One night, I pass a two-story New England house with a glass front door and a circle of light traipsing across its front yard. A boy leans out a bedroom window, a flashlight in hand, the bedroom behind him dark. He shines the light right then left over the plants below. I stop and wonder if he’s looking for something I could throw up to him. The boy sees me and slinks back inside, the flashlight roving around his bedroom ceiling.
All three months I’m there I think of the boy and his light. I’m reminded of a parable from a Zen-a-day calendar my uncle got my dad for his birthday. A story typed on a thin square of paper with the date in large font.
A monk enlists his students to help find his keys which he’s dropped in a field. The students crouch and sift for hours. One of the students notices the monk is searching in a distant part of the field.
“I thought you said you dropped your keys over there,” the student says.
“I did,” says the monk, without straightening.
“Then why are you looking over here?”
“Because here,” the monk replies, “there is more light.”
As I round the corner into my uncle’s driveway, the white flash of the TV hits the windows of the living room, facing the street. He’s waiting for me.
The pandemic has made me a cook, an addict to exercise, a horny teenager and a skeptic of Buddhism. Every other week my uncle reiterates how ridiculous he finds having more than two forks, more than one plate, one bowl, one cup, one block of cheese.
“But you are lucky enough to have many plates and many forks,” I say.
“Look at all this pasta she buys that we never eat,” he says. “She” always refers to my absent aunt. Between the two of us she is never absent.
Pasta is pleasure, I want to say. All that distracts from the misery of life—clothes and food and drink and ceramic plates, my uncle has rounded up and shot.
We work our way through linguine, rigatoni, spaghettini.
If I am in close proximity to the refrigerator, my uncle will open it and list its insides. He’ll place the strawberries, mayonnaise, spinach on the kitchen island where I’m writing an essay on eating disorders. He doesn’t understand you can’t make a meal out of fruit and mayonnaise and spinach.
His mother, my grandmother, left only nail polish in the fridge for her growing boys.
“She was on a diet,” my uncles and father say.
“Her whole life?” I reply.
One afternoon, I convince myself I’m going to make fried rice. We drive the one minute and forty-two seconds to the grocery, grab ingredients, give sympathetic looks to the checkout girl and return to the kitchen. My uncle goes upstairs to meditate and I use every chopping board I can find.
The rice turns to mush, the egg makes it watery and I turn up the gas, burning the bottom.
My uncle plods down the stairs. “How’s it going?”
I am near tears. Outside the French doors to the backyard the rain pours gunmetal gray, I’ve gained six pounds, I’m starving, I’m almost out of contact lenses, my latest essay made sense to no one including me, and now my uncle will be disappointed.
He hugs me. I haven’t been hugged in two months. Then he scrapes the steaming mush into the trash, puts the pan outside, and leaves the door open to air out the kitchen.
Olivia Nathan is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been published in Waccamaw Journal and Write or Die Tribe. She is an alumna of Barnard College and originally from Los Angeles.